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E00739: Cave (so-called 'Grotto of Paul') at Ephesos (on the slope of Bülbüldağ, western Asia Minor), with painting, perhaps of the 5th c., showing *Paul (the Apostle, S00008) and *Thekla (the follower of Paul, S00092), and with undated graffiti invoking Paul (and other saints). Shrine continually in use, probably from the 5th c.

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posted on 2015-09-24, 00:00 authored by pnowakowski
An Ephesian sanctuary called by modern archaeologists the Grotto of Paul, or Paulusgrotte, is located on the northern slope of Bülbüldağ (ancient Mount Koressos). It consists of two natural caves (one much larger than the other) and a rectangular structure placed in front of them. The sanctuary was discovered by Otto Benndorf in 1906 (see FiE I, 104-105, n. 4). He observed that *Mary (the mother of Jesus) was being venerated there by Greek speakers under the name κρυφή Παναγία ('the hidden all-holy One'). Numerous graffiti covering the walls and niches (which he interpreted as burial places) caught his attention.

In 1955 the site was visited by Walter Modrijan, Fritz Gschnitzer and Dieter Knibbe who transcribed some of the graffiti. That year the site was excavated by Franz Miltner. He sketched a plan of the sanctuary and suggested that the niches were not meant for burials but rather for storing liturgical vessels, oil lamps and candles, while the one located next to the entrance was a chamber for catechumens. He claimed that the front building was constructed over earlier Roman foundations, and dated the whole complex to the Byzantine period. Based on numerous invocations of *Paul (the Apostle) Miltner identified the sanctuary as a place of cult of this disciple and coined the term Paulusgrotte (Grotto of Paul ) (see Miltner 1956).

Miltner's conclusions were later questioned. In 1963 Lois Hopfgartner examined the sanctuary again and dated it to the 5th or even 4th c.. Karl Gschwind pointed out that, despite numerous invocations addressed to Paul, the cave could have been primarily consecrated to Mary. A local legend, recorded at the close of the 19th c. by Johannes Nießen says that *John the Evangelist took Mary to Ephesos where she lived in a small grotto on the slopes of Mt. Budrun (another mountain in the environs of the city); since she was hiding there from pagan persecutions, the grotto was called 'the hidden holy (Virgin)' which resembles the term κρυφή Παναγία recorded by Benndorf with reference to our cave. From there, always according to this legend, she moved to another location (Kavalli-Panagia), and finally to our sanctuary the slopes of Bülbüldağ.

In 1995/1996 a new phase of systematic research began, supervised by Renate Pillinger. For a brief history of research at the site, see Pillinger 2000, 16-18.


Several important paintings were found inside the grotto (mostly during the 1996/1998 campaigns). Some of them were discovered after removing upper layers of plaster, which means that the decor of the sanctuary was changing over time. Probably between 1890 and 1897 the upper layer was covered with whitewash to protect it from Muslims who found the depictions of people offensive and partially destroyed them.

1) The most famous painting was found on the western wall of the larger cave, next to the entrance and a large natural chamber, on the middle layer of plaster. It shows two figures which, thanks to painted labels, can be securely identified as *Paul the Apostle (sitting and holding an open book) and Theoklia, mother of Thekla, the follower of Paul. Next to Paul there is also a depiction of a house with Thekla leaning through a window. None of the figures have haloes.

The labels read:

Θέ[κλα] Παῦ- Θεόκλι[α]

'Thekla, Paul, Theoklia'

Text: Pillinger 2000.

Pillinger tentatively, but plausibly, dates this layer of plaster to the 5th c. based on the style of the painting and the archaeological context. Beneath it there is another layer of red plaster (probably dating to the 4th c.).

2) Important paintings were found also on the walls of the room-like extension (the so-called "Presbyterium") at the end of the larger cave.

Studies conducted after 2002 revealed that there were at least five layers of plaster on its eastern wall. The uppermost layer bears a 12th/13th c. picture of *George, labeled ἅ(γιος) Γεώργιος. The second layer (downwards) is adorned with a painting showing a fruit-bearing tree. On the third layer there is a depiction of four figures with haloes (two of them are certainly women). This layer most probably corresponds to the painting preserved on the southern wall of the chamber, which shows three figures. The person portrayed in the middle is beardless. His right hand is raised. In his left hand he is holding a scroll. He is wearing a white cloak and is sitting on a rainbow arc. He is also surrounded by an aureola. This is certainly Christ, and the depiction resembles his image from the mosaic in the apse in the Church of Hosios David in Thessaloniki, which dates to the late 5th c.

On the right-hand side of the beardless Christ there is a person with halo, holding a codex. A person holding a staff is standing on his left-hand side. To the left of them there is one more figure – perhaps a boy. On the opposite site there are traces of a female figure. This layer of plaster spreads also to the western wall, where three men are shown – two of them are holding codices and one is holding a staff. These, and similar figures mentioned earlier, are most probably founders: laymen (with codices) and clerics (with staffs). At first the whole picture was identified by Pillinger as the Transfiguration scene (see Pillinger 2000, 22-23), but this hypothesis is no longer valid.

The fourth layer of plaster (perhaps 3rd c.), partially uncovered on the eastern wall, is decorated with a blue medallion in a white frame. It shows a young person riding a chariot (a quadriga). Two horses and part of a wheel are clearly visible. Pillinger says that it resembles depictions of Helios, for instance, the one from the metope of the temple of Athena in Troy or from a tomb under the church of St. Peter in Rome. In the upper segment of the circle one can also note two feet of a man. An inscription naming three of the rivers of Paradise (Phison, Tigris, Euphrates) runs around the medallion.

The fifth layer was also observed, but is seems that this is just red plaster, with no depictions.

3) Other paintings uncovered in the grotto include a depiction of a man, probably *Abraham shown in the scene of the Binding of Isaac (to the left of the entrance to the larger cave, in front of the picture of Paul and Thekla); a depiction of Christ with halo and several persons sitting at a table (in the first small arcosolium-like niche), and a depiction of the Virgin Mary with her Child, seated and accompanied by two figures (in the second small arcosolium-like niche).

Inscriptions and graffiti:

An inscription with a vow was found to the right of the painting showing Paul and Thekla. It reads:

[- - -] ὑπὲρ εὐχῆς [- - ] τοῦ οἴκου αὐτοῦ [- - -]

'[- - -] in vow of [- - -] of his household [- - -]'

Text: Pillinger 2005, 58.

The walls of the sanctuary are covered with about 300 graffiti, added over the centuries by pilgrims to the site, Unfortunately the texts of only a very few of these (none datable with any confidence) have so far been published. Of these four invoke *Paul (the Apostle), and one both *Mary (mother of Jesus) and *Michael (Archangel). What follows below are those with invocations of saints:

A: I. Ephesos, no. 1285/17; Pillinger 2000, 20; Miltner 1956, 56.

βοήθι τῦ δούλο σου
Νικε[- - -]

3. Νικ[ I. Ephesus, Pillinger

B: I. Ephesos, no. 1285/3; Miltner 1956, 57.

ἅγειε Παῦλε, βοήθει
τῇ δούλῃ σου π(νευ)ματικῇ
κὲ Σεπα̣τ̣ο̣β̣ο̣υ̣ ΕΤΕΙ [- - -]

2. τῆ δούλη σου [- - -] Miltner || 3. κὲ Σεπ[τιμία? - - -] Miltner

C: I. Ephesos, no. 1285/1; Miltner 1956, 57.

Παῦλε, β[ο]ή[θει

D: I. Ephesos, no. 1285/19.

Μαρία, Μιχαήλ

E: Pillinger 2000, 20.

Παύλου, δὸς τῷ δούλου σου Σ[ω]φρονίῳ καλὸν
[πλ]οῦν καὶ [- - -]

2. [πλ]οῦν Feissel (in a letter dated 17.09.2016), [ν]οῦν Pillinger

A: 'Paul, help your servant Nike[- - - -]!'
B: 'St. Paul, help your spiritual servant (a woman) and Sepatobos (?) [- - -]!'
C: 'Paul, help [- - -]!'
D: 'Maria, Michael.'
E: 'Paul, give your servant Sophronios a good journey and [- - -]'


Evidence ID


Saint Name

Thekla, follower of Apostle Paul : S00092 Paul, the Apostle : S00008 Mary, the Mother of Jesus : S00033 Michael, the Archangel : S00181

Saint Name in Source

Θέκλα Παῦλος

Type of Evidence

Archaeological and architectural - Cult buildings (churches, mausolea) Images and objects - Wall paintings and mosaics Inscriptions - Graffiti


  • Greek

Evidence not before


Evidence not after


Activity not before


Activity not after


Place of Evidence - Region

Asia Minor

Place of Evidence - City, village, etc


Place of evidence - City name in other Language(s)

Ephesus Nicomedia Νικομήδεια Nikomēdeia Izmit Πραίνετος Prainetos Nicomedia

Cult activities - Places

Holy cave

Cult activities - Non Liturgical Practices and Customs

Visiting graves and shrines

Cult Activities - Protagonists in Cult and Narratives

Foreigners (including Barbarians)


There is no doubt that this cave was a Christian shrine in Late Antiquity. By modern times it had acquired an association with *Mary (mother of Jesus); but the earliest evidence is for an association with Paul (who, of course was closely linked to Ephesos(through the account in Acts of his troubles there, and through his Letter to the Ephesians). Paul features prominently in the graffiti invocations, and the one readily identifiable early saintly image is the painting of Paul with Thekla and Theoklia, which may well be 5th century. It is a narrative scene, and therefore not necessarily itself the subject of veneration, but it certainly suggest an association of the cave with the Paul. The appearance of Thekla as a central protagonist of the scene is interesting and somewhat puzzling - the stories around her were very popular in Late Antiquity and she had a major cult in Cilicia in eastern Asia Minor; but her cult is not attested in Asia Minor as far west as Ephesos in our period. Possibly these appeared on other walls, but it is somewhat strange that the choice of scene from the life of Paul was not one of the episodes of his career in Ephesos. Renate Pillinger suggests that the scene showing Paul, Thekla and Theoklia may illustrate a passage from the Acts of Paul and Thecla: καὶ ταῦτα τοῦ Παύλου λέγοντος ἐν μέσῳ τῆς ἐκκλησίας ἐν τῷ Ὀνησιφόρου οἴκῳ, Θέκλα τις παρθένος Θεοκλείας μητρὸς μεμνηστευμένη ἀνδρὶ Θαμύριδι, καθεσθεῖσα ἐπὶ τῆς σύνεγγυς θυρίδος τοῦ οἴκου ἤκουεν νυκτὸς καὶ ἡμέρας τὸν περὶ ἁγνείας λόγον λεγόμενον ὑπὸ τοῦ Παύλου. (Acta Pauli et Theclae 7, ed. Lipsius, in: Lipsius, R.A., Bonnet., M. (eds.), Acta Apostolorum Apocrypha, vol. 1: Acta Petri, Acta Pauli, Acta Petri et Pauli, Acta Pauli et Theclae, Acta Thaddaei, (Leipzig: Hermann Mendelssohn, 1890, 240) 'And when Paul was preaching in the middle of the congregation in the house of Onesiphoros, a certain virgin called Thekla, daughter of Theokleia, who was betrothed to Thamyris, sat on the doorstep of a nearby house and was listening, day and night, to the teachings of Paul that concerned chastity.' (trans. P. Nowakowski)


Edition: Pillinger, R., "Neue Entdeckungen in der sogenannten Paulusgrotte von Ephesos", Mitteilungen zur christlichen Archäologie 6 (2000), 16-29. Pillinger, R., "Vielschichtige Neuigkeiten in der sog. Paulusgrotte von Ephesos (dritter vorläufiger Bericht, zu den Jahren 2003 und 2004)", Mitteilungen zur christlichen Archäologie 11 (2005), 56-58. Miltner, F., "XXI Vorläufiger Bericht über die Ausgrabungen in Ephesos", Jahreshefte des österreichischen Archäologischen Institutes 43 (1956) Beiblatt, 54-63. Further Reading: Benndorf, O. (ed.), Forschungen in Ephesos, vol. 1 (Vienna: Selbstverlag des ÖAI Wien, 1906), 104-105. Destephen, S., "Martyrs locaux et cultes civiques en Asie Mineure", in: J.C. Caillet, S. Destephen, B. Dumézil, H. Inglebert, Des dieux civiques aux saints patrons (IVe-VIIe siècle) (Paris: éditions A. & J. Picard, 2015), 77, note 53; 86. Gschwind, K., Der Ephesische Johannes und die Artemis Ephesia, Basel 1965, 19-20. Nießen, J., Panagia Kapuli, Das neuentdeckte Wohn- u. Sterbehaus der heil. Jungfr. M. bei Ephesus (Dülmen in Weimar, 1906), 370. Pillinger, R., "Die Wandmalereien in der so genannten Paulusgrotte von Ephesos: Studien zur Ausführungstechnik und Erhaltungsproblematik, Restaurierung und Konservierung", Anzeiger der philosophisch-historischen Klasse (Österreichische Akademie der Wissenschaften Wien) 143/1 (2008), 71-116. Pillinger, R., "Thekla in der Paulusgrotte von Ephesos", in: Barrier, J., Bremmer, J.N., Nicklas, T., Puig i Tàrrech, A. (eds.), Thecla: Paulʼs Disciple and Saint in the East and West (Studies on Early Christian Apocrypha 12, Leuven: Peeters, 2017), 205-218. Yasin, A.M., "Prayers on site: the materiality of devotional graffiti and the production of early Christian sacred space", in: A. Eastmond (ed.), Viewing inscriptions in the Late Antique and Medieval World (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 46. Reference works: Bulletin épigraphique (1958), 421. Chroniques d'épigraphie byzantine, 282. Supplementum Epigraphicum Graecum 16, 724; 50, 1172; 53, 1294; 57, 1120.

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